5 questions now facing the GAA in 2021

Updated Feb 13th 2021, 12:00 PM

SHOCK AND CONFUSION reigned in GAA circles following Wednesday night’s announcement that inter-county was no longer covered under the government’s elite status.

Paul Flynn, John Horan, Feargal McGill and Micheál Martin.

The majority of squads had been operating under the belief that collective training would return in early March, but that’s been put back until April at the earliest. 

Gaelic Players Association chief executive Paul Flynn moved to reassure players on Thursday that there has been “no change to the status of inter-county games nor the high regard in which it is held” after he spoke with Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers.

Chambers had earlier stated on RTÉ Radio 1 that the GAA’s exemption for inter-county competitions to take place under Level 5 restrictions expired in December. He said there had been no further requests from the GAA, LGFA and Camogie Association for that exemption to be extended into January and February.

It also emerged that the GAA’s Covid-19 Advisory committee, which includes NPHET member Professor Mary Horgan, recommended to Croke Park a week earlier that games and training should “not return at this time, given the prevalence of the virus in our communities.”

In addition, GAA president John Horan told RTÉ it was their understanding that the inability of inter-county squads to “operate in a bubble” was the primary reason for the loss of their elite status. However, that wasn’t a requirement when the inter-county season resumed last October.

It seems like an unnecessary step for the government to remove the GAA’s elite status at a stage when Croke Park had no intention of resuming games any time soon. However, both Chamber and Taoiseach Micheál Martin stated publicly that the matter would be reviewed when the government’s ‘Living with Covid’ roadmap is redrafted in the coming weeks. 

So it remains a possibility, if an unlikely one, that collective training can return before Easter if the government sees fit. If things do change, the GAA’s Covid-19 Advisory committee will meet and decide whether to push forward the return of inter-county training.

The GAA hierarchy are well aware the argument that League of Ireland teams can bubble more effectively than inter-county panels because it’s a professional sport doesn’t hold much water.

Yet the succession of senior administrators who spoke on the airwaves this week, while disappointed, seemed content to accept the government’s decision. 

It’s clear that the relatively high level of cases in the community, the increased transmissibility of the new UK variant, in particular, and perhaps even financial issues are factors in the GAA’s sanguine response.

What has changed for Croke Park and how is it likely to affect the way 2021 plays out from a GAA context? We’ll take a look at some key questions facing the GAA this year.

A general view of Croke Park.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

1. How are finances affected?

Had inter-county training been green lit to resume next month, county boards would be facing a sharp rise in costs related to team preparations.

With training suspended indefinitely, counties for the moment don’t need to drum up means of paying for members of backroom teams, plus nutrition, medical, gear and equipment costs.

Boards will view that as a positive given how their revenue streams have largely dried up, aside from sponsorship deals and, when competitions resume, broadcasting income. For the smaller counties, significant funds will have to be raised from fundraising drives to enter teams in the league and championship.

Financially, until crowds can return county boards are better off with a delayed start to training, which will mean a more condensed inter-county season. A tighter season will leave a smaller hole in the balance sheets nationwide.

In addition, Croke Park’s finance committee are well aware that the longer it takes for inter-county games to resume, the greater the prospect of gate receipts and crowds returning. And they are off the hook for player expenses until then.

So in a strange way, this decision makes financial sense for the Association, which may go some way to explaining the relaxed response by GAA hierarchy.

Action from the Tipperary-Mayo All-Ireland SFC semi-final in December,

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

2. What does it mean for the format of inter-county league and championship?

The National Football League has already been truncated into groups of four, so realistically it could be played over four weeks. With two groups of six, Division 1A and 1B in hurling could easily be split into smaller groups.

If the month of April is given to pre-season training and May to the league, the championship could start in mid to late June.

Heading straight into the championship after a four-week pre-season is unlikely because the introduction of the Tailteann Cup gives football’s league extra importance. It can’t be scrapped as it links to the second tier competition that will come into existence after being postponed in 2020.

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A return to straight knock-out championships have been mooted. The GAA won’t make any decision on competition formats until the picture becomes clearer at Easter. If inter-county training can’t resume by that stage, then major restructures are coming.

Ballyhale Shamrocks’ Richie Reid celebrates winning the Kilkenny SHC title.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

3. Could club and county seasons flip once again?

There is a strong possibility that the season will be flipped with club championships taking place before county for the second year in succession.

The main issue here is it’s unlikely the government will permit ‘non elite’ sport go ahead unless the country is in Level 3 or 2 restrictions, which appears a long way off at this stage.

There are a number of advantages for the GAA to run off club championships first. It would allow counties gain revenue streams through streaming and potentially gate receipts if crowds are allowed to attend. 

Secondly and more importantly, it means there is a greater chance of supporters attending the inter-county games later in the year, which would be a big revenue earner for Croke Park. 

But while there was a certain novelty to last year’s winter championship, players and managers may be more reluctant to play big games in such poor weather conditions once again in 2021.

Sixmilebridge GAA club in Clare.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

4. When can underage training resume and club pitches re-open?

The plight of underage players must be mentioned in all this. With schools still closed, young GAA players are being denied the opportunity to head down to the local pitch to kick or puck around with their friends or parents.

The value in allowing youngsters exercise and socialise in controlled environments with non-contact training in small pods should not be understated. Children have been practically housebound for months, isolated with only technology to occupy them.

The real concern for the GAA is how many youngsters will return to the game when this all ends. Drop-out rates in late teens, particularly among girls, were already worrying levels pre-pandemic.

Re-opening club pitches for youngsters to practice their skills would offer some semblance of hope in these bleak times.

The GAA’s director general Tom Ryan and president John Horan.

Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

5. Is there a communication issue between the GAA and government?

The majority of county squads will be having Zoom meetings over this weekend to discuss plans for their individual training between now until Easter. Most panels are at least six weeks into running programmes with the view of resuming collective training in March, so plans will have to be redrawn.

There’s a great frustration among county managers over the delay in the GAA relaying information to them. Why were county squads working off the basis that training would resume in March if the GAA’s elite status was revoked by the government in January?

It points to a lack of proper communication between the government and Croke Park.

Reading in between the lines of interviews given by the GAA’s top brass in recent days, it appears they were operating off the belief that the exemption would be carried over into 2021.

When the GAA published its schedule for 2021 on 19 December, it stated that inter-county training was set to resume on 15 January. This was before the late December spike in cases, but still the government saw no issue with the GAA’s plans at that stage.

By the GAA’s admission, last week’s meeting with government officials was the first they heard of the exemption being revoked.

The government’s response to the pandemic has left an awful lot to be desired. Their communication with the biggest sporting organisation in the country is another example of that.

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